Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue improperly injected political campaigning into a Farmers to Families Food Box event in North Carolina, a government watchdog agency concluded Thursday, directing Perdue to reimburse the government for the costs of his participation at the event.

“Taken as a whole,” Perdue’s comments at the Aug. 24 event in Mills River, N.C., also attended by President Donald Trump and White House adviser Ivanka Trump, “encouraged those present, and those watching remotely, to vote for President Trump’s reelection,” Ana Galindo-Marrone, chief of the Hatch Act Unit in the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), said in a letter.

Perdue violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal executive branch employees from using their “official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election,” Galindo-Marrone said.

Under a provision of that law, “Secretary Perdue may not use his official title while engaging in political activity or his official position to advance or oppose candidates for partisan political office,” the OSC letter said.

In his speech, Perdue described Trump’s “recent action to bolster the food box program and said ‘that’s what’s going to continue to happen — four more years — if America gets out and votes for this man, Donald J. Trump,'” the OSC letter noted.

“Even in an administration that has racked up a record number of Hatch Act violations, it is still shocking to see a Cabinet secretary violate the law in such an egregious manner,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which filed a complaint with OSC.

“Frankly, we expect more from a Cabinet secretary, particularly one who has spent so many years in the government,” Bookbinder added.

USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but defended Perdue's actions in a statement to OSC, saying he “did not encourage attendees to vote for a candidate or party or advocate for a partisan political group,” according to the OSC letter.

But “the justifications offered by USDA in Secretary Perdue’s defense only reinforce the conclusion that he violated the Hatch Act,” OSC said. “Those justifications included that he ‘predicted who else might support the President [in his reelection] because of his policy priorities and accomplishments’ and ‘observed that, if given the opportunity, the President would be able to advance his policy agenda of helping farmers and families in need for four additional years.’

“But those are precisely the sorts of statements that courts have found are intended to encourage supporters to vote for a particular candidate,” OSC said. “Indeed, it is hard to imagine a better example of campaign rhetoric than telling constituents what a candidate would do if elected.”

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A contingent of six House Democrats — Reps. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Jim McGovern, D-Mass., Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., and Alma Adams, D-N.C. — said in a joint statement that Cabinet officials like Perdue "should know better than to abuse their official capacity at the expense of American taxpayers."

“Politics has no place in the USDA’s official operations, especially during a time of such great need," they added. "We are glad to see the Special Counsel has taken steps to hold Secretary Perdue accountable. Before engaging in this sort of illegal, inappropriate, and disgraceful behavior in the future, the Secretary should keep in mind his primary duty is to execute USDA’s stated mission to ‘Do right and feed everyone.’”

In a letter to Fudge, OSC says the U.S. Treasury "must be reimbursed for the costs associated with (Perdue's) political activity." The letter does not specify the amount to be reimbursed, only that the Treasury “must be reimbursed within a ‘reasonable period of time’ for the costs associated with his participation in the Aug. 24 event.” Regulations do not define what period of time that is, but OSC said it “has previously proposed a 30-day reimbursement window.”

“Typically, [the money] isn't reimbursed personally,” CREW’s Jordan Libowitz said. “It must be reimbursed by a political operation, usually the campaign for which the violation took place picks up the bill.”

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